Peter Rigdway Taylor

Doctor of Engineering

17 February 2009 – Orator: Professor Roy Severn

Mr Vice-Chancellor Peter Taylor

If we were to ask our guests today what image flicks across their mind when the city of Bristol is mentioned, I am sure that close to the front would be the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and with it a shortish man in a top-hat, smoking a cigar, wearing a frock-coat, and with his hands thrust into the front pockets of his trousers – Isambard Kingdom Brunel of course – who, according to a recent TV poll is the second most illustrious Englishman after our former University Chancellor, Winston Churchill. It was a pleasant surprise that a civil engineer should be thus honoured, being recognition of the profession’s contribution to UK infrastructure development in the nineteenth century, with Brunel being the most charismatic of its leaders. Bristolians are of course proud to note that very few cities and universities can claim association with even one of these poll-winners, let alone both.

Peter Taylor, our Honorary graduand this morning, is also a civil engineer specialising in the design and construction of bridges, but he doesn’t wear a top-hat, he doesn’t smoke cigars, nor have I ever seen him wearing a frock-coat: that he sports a beard is another feature which distinguishes him from Brunel. Despite these differences, I hope that during the next few minutes I can persuade you, Mr Vice-Chancellor, that in the design and construction of suspension and cable-stayed bridges, he certainly ranks as a modern Brunel. I should say that the suspension bridge principle is one of the earliest to be used, but the cable-stayed variety is of recent origin, and we have examples close at hand in the Wye bridge at Chepstow, and the Second Severn Crossing, for which our Graduand’s firm was the Specialist Consultant on vibration and construction aspects. In this address I shall simply refer to both as suspension bridges; this is allowable, because they have the common characteristic of responding significantly to ‘live’ loads of wind, earthquakes and traffic – the word ‘live’ indicating forces which vary with time in a complex manner, and for all of which the Engineer’s design task has many common features 

Peter was born in Burton-on-Trent in 1939 and obtained his BSc degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Birmingham in 1960, followed by an MASc from the University of British Columbia in 1962. Interest in what was to become his life’s work was generated by the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge failure in America, which occurred in 1940 but, due to the 1939-45 war, the spectacular collapse and the ciné film which recorded it, was not made available until later, becoming compulsory viewing in the 1950s in all university departments of civil engineering. Peter Taylor would have known from his Birmingham professor that the problem of ‘aerodynamic instability’ – which destroyed the Tacoma bridge – had been solved during the Second World War in the wings of Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, by two men, Alfred Pugsley and Roderick Collar, who later became professors here in our University.  And Peter may have known that two of the Engineering professors at University College Bristol – our predecessor institution – had studied the effects of wind on man-made structures – the famous Tay Bridge disaster in 1875 being an exemplar.

So Peter persuaded his English-born wife Gillian to return to England to discuss with Pugsley the possibility of research with him on the effect of wind loads on suspension bridges. But Pugsley, now approaching retirement, suggested instead that Peter might work with his younger colleague, who had become involved in research on the effects of earthquakes on concrete arch dams, sponsored by the Institution of Civil Engineers. Thus, instead of consolidating his interest in the effect of winds on suspension bridges, within three years Peter had mastered the complexities of earthquake effects on concrete dams, which he was later able to apply to suspension bridges. It may be considered surprising, Mr Vice-Chancellor, that anyone in the UK should be seriously interested in the effects of earthquakes on anything; my explanation is that our Civil Engineering profession is an international business, with much activity in countries where earthquakes and winds are design conditions.

Peter Taylor’s research in the Faculty, in both its theoretical and experimental aspects, had the most significant effects on its future. In theoretical matters we recall that although digital computers were available in the 1960s, it was necessary for researchers to write their own ‘software’, and errors in this software could produce incorrect answers. It was crucial, therefore, to devise experimental checks, and in achieving this, with what we would today regard as exceedingly simple facilities, Peter began the combination of theory-plus-experiment which carried both him and our Faculty towards their present international standing in wind and earthquake engineering.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, you will know better than I whether the ‘Bristol Disease’ is still prevalent in the University. It affects its victims by inducing a strong reluctance to leave, and we did our best to ensure that Peter was afflicted by it; but we did not succeed. His goal was to become involved in practice as a Consulting Engineer so that when he returned to Canada in 1965 he joined the Dominion Bridge Company in Montreal, learning the practical aspects of bridge design and construction, before linking in 1974 with his fellow Englishman, Peter Buckland, in founding, in Vancouver, the firm of Consulting Engineers which bears their names. I feel that I must here explain what a Consulting Engineer actually does. In a similar way to a medical consultant, his aim is to earn a reputation for excellence in a particular area of a larger profession. He may produce the original design and/or method of construction, which he is then called upon to supervise, or may act in the legally-required role of ‘checker’ of the correctness of another firm’s work, in which case he will carry ultimate responsibility for the success of the project.

It is at this point, Mr Vice-Chancellor, that I wish I could use some form of visual display to illustrate the international nature, and magnificence of Peter Taylor’s achievements, because any word pictures I produce for you are totally inadequate, and I can only appeal to your imagination, and perhaps personal experience of the illustrations which I have chosen.

For the Golden Gate Suspension Bridge in San Francisco, which has a main-span 60 times that of Brunel’s Clifton Bridge, participation in a seismic retrofit has been recently undertaken to the most demanding standards, and this in a region of the USA where expertise in earthquake engineering is certainly not lacking.

Staying in North America, what Peter considers to have been his most important contribution to bridge design concerns an adaptation of the infamous Tacoma Narrows bridge. By marrying the weak original deck-section to a composite deck appropriate to today’s multi-lane highways, he was able to provide the necessary aerodynamic stability.  This invention, illustrated by him in his design of the 465 metre Alex Fraser bridge, changed the technology of cable-stayed bridge design internationally.

For my third illustration I choose the Rio Antirion cable-stayed bridge which spans the Gulf of Corinth in Greece. For this 5-span bridge, of length 2,252 metres and in a region of seismic activity and strong winds – these were indeed a real hazard during the construction process – Peter Taylor’s firm filled the role of independent design checkers, which meant that he, as Senior Partner, had the personal responsibility for approving all the 5,000 construction drawings – surely the type of responsibility which few of us are ever called upon to carry. But the shoulders were strong – the bridge was completed on time in 2004 and is now carrying traffic.

Finally, picture if you will, a 100-year old bridge of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which has to be replaced by new sections, each weighing 200 tons, from a floating crane, within a 6-hour window, and a delay penalty in 10-minute intervals, each costing $10,000. The last section is about to be lowered on to locating bolts previously placed in concrete according to calculations by a qualified surveyor. What would you do if, when the deck section was lowered, you found that the bolts are exactly one foot in error, and you had six trains waiting to cross the bridge? When he writes his autobiography, Peter will tell you exactly how he managed to get the trains across with ten minutes to spare.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, for a lifetime of study and achievement in the design and construction of long-span bridges under the most severe environmental conditions, I present to you Peter Ridgway Taylor as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Engineering, honoris causa.

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